Science Fiction Romance Saturn space ship blues

The Saturn Ring Blues

By James Van Pelt
May 24, 2019 · 4,209 words · 16 minutes

Photo by Greg Rakozy via Unsplash.

From the author: New sports await us in the far future, but the heart remains the same. We want what we want. Time and technology won't change that.

Old Jelly Roll Morton's soulful voice fills the buglighter's cabin.  Nothing more mournful and perfect than a good, solid dose of the blues while you're waiting at the edge of the ring for the start of the race.  That and the cloud-striped surface of Saturn turning below, the dusky-edged ridge of the rings above, catching a little of the reflected light, and between them both the sharp eyed light of the stars.  Lots of sad stringed guitar and bent-note blues harp, and his whiskey voice down deep.  It's a pool hall voice. 

I met Elinor in a pool hall.  She had an attractive way of blowing chalk dust off her knuckles that caught my eye.  We racked up games till the bar closed.  Only thing I can beat her at.  I see the angles clear.  "You got those angle eyes," she said.

It's true.  I even like my hull transparent.  Most of the equipment's behind, all that stuff that shapes the forces around the buglighter, keeping me safe from danger, and, when the need arises, pushing me where I want to go.  So with the hull clear, I'm sitting alone  and pretty in the stars.  That's the way I feel, just like those blues songs tell me: "Lordy, I'm all by myself since my baby done left me."

Lots of buglighters can't do it--perch in the clear like I do--too much space around them.  It's hard on the heart.  Elinor said to me, "Virgil, you're too much of a sit down and look around kind of guy."  She would know, I guess.  Of course I wasn't paying attention at the time; we were playing pool and I said, "Shh.  I'm concentrating."

The starter's voice interrupts the music: "Flyers, welcome to the 17th annual Greater Circumference of Saturn Ring Runners Challenge, 2,500 Kgram class.  Five minutes to race time."

A hundred meters around,  dust motes spark off the bubble that contains me.  Zap, zap . . . there go a couple more.  That's where we get the name, buglighter, little bits of ice and rock, zappin' like firecrackers in the forces surrounding us.  In five minutes the race will start, and I'll adjust the bubble.  Instead of flicking that ring sand away, it'll suck it in, transform it in an instant, and shape the pulse into comforting thrust,  rolling me around the inside of the ring on fission fire in my perfect sphere of protecting energy, sort of like a transparent cue ball bounding off the bumpers of the ring.  From the start, all the way around again, about 578,000 Kmeters, or roughly 15 times the circumference of the Earth.

Over my shoulder, Elinor's buglighter is all aglow.  She's a hot one, her.  She likes to start these races fast, so she's storing energy in the field.  She's always got a plan.  Plan ahead, that's her.  She didn't see me in her future, I guess.  Cut me loose clean.  She likes to fly light.

"Got 'cha on my backside, Elinor G.," I say on a private channel, figuring that it won't hurt to assay some warmth in her direction.

"Cut the chatter, Delta Mud," she says.  That's my ship, not me.  Feel that way most the time though, just as low down as can be.  So I turn up the music.  Little bit of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, "Blues from the Lowlands."  I got 'em too.  Got 'em bad.  Don't know why you're sayin' no to me, Elinor G.

Nothing to do then except study the course ahead, sending out some high-imaging radar.  It shows me what to miss--klunking into a chunk of ring matter bigger than a football or so at 50,000 kph would put a dent in my day, and, of course, it'll send that rock flying like a cannonball in the opposite direction--but, it doesn't show me where to go: the rich sand and pebbles I can eat up and convert to thrust.  That's the art and joy of ring running: dodging the big ones; following the fuel, shooting fast around the ring without spinning out.

My first two chords are clear, but after that, I'll be checking as I go: thousands of kph, glimpsing ahead for widow-makers on the high wire edge of the ring.  It's only a kilometer wide, generally, at least only a kilometer of usable rock.

Ring racing is in the chords' progression and rhythm--like the blues--cutting across the arc of the orbit's circle.  The way I fly, the shorter the chords, the faster the ship.  Look and blast, look and blast.  Can't look while you're blasting (too much interference); can't blast without looking (otherwise you'd be sure to fetch up against some pocky chunk of rock, big as a barn and your race would be over forever).  It's a funny looking race, if you diagram it.  Put two circles on a piece of paper, one inside the other, and the outside one not too much bigger than the inner.  That inside circle is Saturn.  The outside one is the inner edge of the ring.  Now, take a ruler and draw a straight line that connects two points of the outer circle without crossing the inner circle.  That's one chord.  If you keep drawing chords, you end up with a polygon that goes around the planet.  That's the race.

My angle of entry into the rings is shallow, and most of the bigger rocks are deeper in, so I minimize risk while maximizing speed.  Elinor, though, she takes these long chords, building up speed on each one; each one dives her deeper into the ring.  It's scary genius at work to watch her fly.

So I keep the chords short to play those high speed blues.  I take out my c-harp and blow a few chords of my own--still nothing better than a Marine Band harmonica.  Well engineered instrument, the harmonica: light, compact, fits in the hand, feels cool on the lips.  Good acoustics in a buglighter too.  Echoes back in nice and tight, like singing in a shower.  I try out a new line for my Elinor Blues.  "Elinor, Elinor, you don't be coming round anymore."  A common blue's pattern is statement, repeat and a variation.  Got the statement and repeat down pat, but don't know a variation yet.  I try one out.  Five-minutes is a long time for a race to start.

Elinor, Elinor, you don't be coming round anymore.

Elinor, Elinor, you don't be coming round anymore.

Been five long years, baby.  Waitin's been such a chore.

 Can't think of her as "baby."  She's all hard muscle and physic's-brain bright.  Give her enough numbers and just enough fuel, and she could with one solid blow, dead-stick the rest of the way a course from the moon, Rhe, to Titan and not miss her orbit slot by a couple of meters.  But every guy singing the blues calls his baby, baby.

The signal starts the race.  Elinor and a couple others blast on the dot, brightness enveloping their buglighters, glowing like acetylene teardrops.  My ship gathers in sand, sucks in a larger pebble or two; most of the mass converted into energy.  Screen shows I've got a clear shot deeper into the ring.  Greater chance of crashing into something, but the usable detritus is thicker.  Let it go all at once.  The good, solid thump of the nuclear explosion behind me pushes me into my seat.  Thank god for inertia dampers, otherwise I'd be a thin jelly on the back wall of the cabin.

Right off, rocks start clattering against the bubble, lost in bright sparks.  I've gained speed, moved up in the orbit, further into the dust.

We run the race on the inner edge of the "B" ring, the bright one you can even see from Earth with a reasonable telescope.  The "C" ring below is much thinner.  Hard to guarantee you'll find rock to blast with when you need it.  The "A" ring is farther out; it's got that cool gap in it where the moon, Pan, orbits.

In my monitor, I see Elinor's ship.  She's taken a long chord as her first jump, crossing all that mostly empty space.  It's a shorter distance to go around, as I mentioned, but a riskier tactic.

"You like a brief life, Elinor?" I say.

"Brief and bright," she says.

I do some quick calculations and whistle in appreciation.  She'll dive into the ring for a couple of hundred Kmeters before she'll have the energy for her next blast.  Her radar can't penetrate that deep.  Too much intervening sand.

"Going for the record?"

"Already got it," she says.

And she does; won last year, and I pulled up a lame second.

Time for the next blast.  Race like this is an art.  Sort of a mix between orbital mechanics, demolition derby and pool; the whole thing done with your heart gripped firmly between your teeth so you don't lose it.

"Going slow there, Delta Mud," she says, but I can't answer before I slam through the burn.  Bubbles go white and glorious as they store up the energy, then release it all at once.  Can't hear it, naturally, though my music gets fuzzy during; way too much radiant activity to avoid that, and the inertia dampers don't completely mask the thrust of it.  My seat presses hard into my back.  I feel every wrinkle in my shirt.

Monitors are clear.  Nothing in my way, so I set up for the next chord.

"Eaten any cold dinners lately?" I say.

"No," she says.  "Have you?"

I let that question hang out there a while.  It's a friendly response, if I hear it right, and probably because she's got an early lead.  Use to be I'd go visit her for dinner pretty regular, and we never did get right to eating it.  One thing lead to another, you know, and the dinner would cool off.

So an answer takes a bit of thinking.  Is she opening the door here?  Are all those cold, cold nights looking out at lonely stars about to come to an end?

I wish I could see her.  You know, to watch her face.  She's got this way of letting the corners of her mouth twitch up when she's making a joke.  It's real subtle.  Lots of folk don't notice.  And she shakes her head sometimes, like she's getting hair out of her eyes, though her hair is spacer-short.

How's she looking now?  What I need is a deep-imaging radar of the heart.  Something to peer in there to check on those pocky rocks drifting unseen.

She's about to end a chord, so I check her progress.

Ring racing is the hardest kind there is.  Straight races . . . well, they're simple.  Thrust behind mass, and don't miss.  Best technology wins.  Pilot might as well stay home (singing the blues).  But here--whew!  Faster you go, the more dangerous it is.  More chances for mistakes.  Less time for decisions.  All the time risking spinout, missing the ring, flying off with better than escape velocity and no mass anywhere to grab.

She's in the ring now.  Gathering energy.  Blasting.  Her trajectory changes, and she's shooting back out the ring to the relatively clear space beneath.

I've got some time.  She'll be checking the path ahead, figuring her next burn. 

I make sure the transmitter is off, blow the harmonica some more--make the harp sing:

Elinor, Elinor, saw you walking in the stars.

Elinor, Elinor, saw you walking in the stars.

Venus at your toe tips; your fingers touching Mars.

She said, "I think I can cut four chords off last year."

I shake my head.  "You'll be sucking Saturn's atmosphere.  Not worth the speed you lose."

She chuckles.  "For you, maybe.  Have you checked the competition?"

I hadn't bothered.  She's the only other ship I care about, but I tapped the display and the others popped onto the grid, way behind.

"Looks like it's just you and me."

"And the record," she adds.  "How's it feel to be the second best flyer in the rings?"  She's laughing.  Pure speed does that to her.

"When you're beat by the best," I say, "Who cares about the rest?"

"That's sweet, Virgil."

I'm into my next burn.  Speed's up, so the bubble fairly crackles, sending dust and tiny rocks in all directions and storing energy.  I let it go, and the chair kicks into my back, snapping my head into the support.  Inertia dampers are good, but most ships let their thrust out more gradual because they carry mass to convert to energy with them.  Buglighters don't carry anything but some maneuvering fuel.  All the rest is gathered in, then, wham, released in a hurry.

A few chords later, speed's way up, and my work's harder.  Soon as the interference clears, I check the radar for rocks, plug in the new numbers, and let the computer go to work with trajectories and mid-course corrections.  While it crunches numbers, I've got nothing to do but think.

Blues are perfect for space, and I'll bet if B.B. King or Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters were alive today, they'd be buglighters.  All that other music, well, it has beginnings and ends, but not the blues.  You can take any song and run it for hours with variations, letting it build or slide down low.  It's back porch music, smoky pool hall music, buglighter music.  You can tell when you're in a spacer bar by the music.  It's all guitars and bass and c-harp bent all over those blue's notes.  Every tune's despairing, but kind of funny too, sort of like cruising in the rings.  Part of it's deadly serious, and then you have to laugh.  Blues and buglighting and my love for Elinor are just too ironic to keep a straight face.

See, when you're singing the blues, you start off all sad and lonely, but after a while, you're into the music.  You forget why you started the song, and you're just doing the song.  And buglighting, you forget why you started or where you're going, and you're just flying the chords.  There's music in them.  Music in the light and the rhythm.  Music in the rainbow of colors when the distant sun catches the rings just right.  Music in the shadows and darkness behind Saturn.  It's the blues, man; everyone knows it's the blues.

We go like this for awhile.  I blast three times for every two of Elinor's.  It's kind of sobering watching her eat up the distance.  She's got so much speed, and it's building.  I'm going about as fast as I feel I can go.  My burns now just get me into the new chord; they don't add much velocity.

But that's the way it's always been.  Old Elinor is always a jump or two ahead of me.

"Doesn't look like you're going to give me a race this year, Virgil."

"It's a long way around," I say.

"I'll have a drink set up for you when you get in," she says.

I'm a ways from my next turn, so I switch to her monitors so I can see what she sees.  It's scary.  Her angle of attack is high.  She can only see a third of the distance into the ring that she penetrates.

"Assuming you make it," I say.

Her screen is greying out as she enters the ring.  A couple of big rocks glow off her path; they're no danger, but I've never seen stuff that big moving by so fast.  She's busy, so I don't say anything and switch back to my own monitor.  She fades out as she gets deeper.  I won't see her till she exits, and I check my own course again.  Looks like clear sailing to me.

"Uh, oh," she says.

I shouldn't be able to hear her yet.  I check the screen.  She's there, going the wrong direction, outside of the ring.  A spinout.

"You all right?" I ask.  Silly question, really.  If she wasn't, I wouldn't have heard anything at all.  She wouldn't be on the monitor.

"Shoot," she says.

I'm running her numbers through the computer.  She's got way too much speed, and she's moving away from the ring.  My calculations show she can't push herself back to it either.

"What happened?"

"Hit something," she says.

"How's your system?"  I check the emergency bands.  She's already sent a "come-hither" to the outer stations.  I send one too.

"Smells bad in here," she says, and she chuckles.  "I think I burnt some stuff out.  Nothing vital.  Heck of a shot.  Must have been a good sized chunk."

"Great race while it lasted," I say.

"Yeah," she sounds preoccupied.  I roll through my next burn.  Our courses are fairly close now, but I'm inside the ring trailing her, and she's outside the ring, rising fast, way faster than me.

"Have you run the intercepts?" she says.

I hadn't, so I plug in the numbers.  They don't look good, and I do them again.

I whistle.

"Yeah," she says.  "I don't think anyone can come get me in time."

"Your bubble still sound?" I say.  My fingers are dancing over the computer keys, inputting data, asking for alternative scenarios.  What happens if she uses her maneuvering fuel to slow down?  What happens if she tries to push herself back into the ring?  None of them look good.

"Yeah."  She sounds sad.  I'm not sure if it's because her chances are dim or because she's out of the race.

I switch out of our private channel.  Titan station is chattering away to miners on Pan to see if they can raise a ship in time, but they aren't geared for quick take-offs, and the moon is in the worst place right now for them to mount a rescue.  They can get to her, but it would be hours too late.  If she'd been going a reasonable speed, no problem, but she's got way too much velocity.  Without a steady supply of fissionable mass, her buglighter will shut down and she'll freeze solid.  Buglighters aren't built for empty space.  They're ring-runners.

The other racers are talking too.  Somebody says he'll chase her, which is plain stupid because he'd never catch her, and even if he did, what good would it do?  He couldn't bring her on board.  He couldn't bring mass out to her.

"I'm going to try braking," she says.  "It'll slow me up, and maybe someone on the outer rings can catch me."

"No, don't," I say.  "Not yet.  Save the fuel."

My imaging radar shows me the ring ahead, mostly fuzz since it's pebbles and sand with a few bright spots that represent bigger rocks.  I'm looking for the right sized rock on the edge of the ring.  Idea's forming.  Nothing looks good, though, so I kick through the next burn and start scanning as soon as I'm clear.

"What do you have in mind?" she says.

"Shh.  I'm concentrating."  I'm thinking about angles, mass, velocity and risk, so I'm not paying much attention to conversation.

Rock can't be too big.  It'd kill my ship, and I couldn't give it the speed it'd need to catch her.  Can't be too small either.  The impact would turn it to dust, and it wouldn't give her enough energy if any of it did reach her buglighter.  And the whole idea is a little wacky anyway.  The odds of making the shot are incredible.  Quite a bit worse than running two bumpers to sink the eight-ball in the corner pocket. 

On the monitor, a likely candidate pops up.  It's on Elinor's edge of the ring.  Not too deep.  Chances are I can line up on it, not be deflected on the way in, and it won't be deflected on the way out.  Hitting right, though, that's the problem.  If I miss by even a fraction of an inch, the rock could spew away at a useless angle; Elinor will be in the same fix, and my buglighter will be too busted up for a second shot.

Once the problem's in the computer, it controls my maneuvering jets.  I'm running the radar on tight scan now, checking the rock, trying to get more info on it, and the numbers are coming back good.

"What are you doing?"  Elinor asks.  I know she can see my buglighter on her monitors.  She can do the same trick I did earlier and have her monitors display what I'm seeing.

I don't say anything.  Not much I can do at this point anyway, but I'm running a second set of calculations, just as an exercise really, since I'm committed to the collision at this point.  Thought it would be interesting to do the math though, to see how much energy my bubble will have to take.  The figures come back.  They're somewhat above what the specs say the ship will handle.  Specs are conservative, I hope.

"Veer off," she says.  "Virgil, this won't work."

I check my straps and buckles.  Inertia damper is going to get a work out here.  "Set your bubble up and get your maneuvering jets ready," I say.  "Don't know how close I can get this to you.  You might have to chase it."  I rotate the buglighter so I'll take the force from behind.

Ship's counting down for me: 10 seconds to impact . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . I turn up the music, a little George Thorogood tune, "Bad to the Bone."

5 . . . 4 . . . 3

Sun light's glistening off the inner edge of the ring flashing past.  Get's a man thinking.

When I wake up, it's silent and dark.  My neck hurts.  Left elbow is locked up.  I touch it gingerly.  Shirt's torn there, and it's damp.  Don't know what might have hit it.  But I've got breathing air, and it's not cold.  Pebbles are zapping at the bubble boundary, so more's good than bad here.  I'll have to thank the designers of the buglighter for the slop built into their tolerance specs.

Computer doesn't answer to voice controls, but when I flip the auxiliaries on, the monitors glow again and start spewing out a list of damages.  Radar won't come up, though, and neither will the radio.  Some whiffs of fried circuitry float in the air, so I shut down the main routines and go to the back-ups.

After a few minutes, the radio crackles and I hear Elinor.  "Virgil," she says.  "Can you hear me, Virgil."  She sounds like she's crying.  Radar's still blank.  Can't tell if I helped her or not.

"I'm here," I say.

Nothing over the radio for a bit.  I'm scrambling to get the radar on-line.  Can't tell how fast I'm going or if anything nasty is in front of me.

"You're a hell of a pool player," she says, finally, and I don't hear any crying in her voice now.  "I didn't have to use but about half my fuel to intercept the rock."

"Luck," I say.

She snorts.  "It was coming pretty darn fast too.  But I got enough of it to make a good burn.  I'll be back in the ring in plenty of time."

"You're the master in the ring," I say.  Radar starts working, and I do a quick scan.  Lost lots of velocity.  No ship-killers on the screen though.  A mini-burn keeps me in the mass field.  Don't need a spinout of my own to cause problems.

"Looks like we're both out of the race." 

"Could be worse, Elinor."  I laugh.  My elbow aches, and I unbuckle myself so I can get to the first-aid station.

"I owe you big time," she says.

"You'd have done it for me."  The first-aid diagnostic gives me a once over, suggests a pain medication and alerts the Inner A Station that I'm injured.

"Might have tried," she says.  "Couldn't have done it."

"Well, I was motivated."

I ease myself back into the chair, swallow the pain meds and set a nice, slow, easy course back to the station, letting the computer do all the work.

"I've been thinking about that," she says.  There's a long pause here.  "Maybe we should get together and talk about it some.  You know, you could drop over for dinner or something."

I smile.  It's been a long time coming.  Nights have stretched, and I've played a lot of harmonica in the meantime.  Around my ship, little blue glitters of rock and ice catch the reflected light off Saturn.  I should be home in a few hours.  It'll take her considerably longer.

"I'll think about it," I say, and switch my radio off.

Nothing's more quiet than the silence in a buglighter when your heart is in a turmoil and you're not sure if the one you want wants you.  I've charted that course before.

The harmonica fits easily into my hand.  A tap or two against my leg clears it out, and I try a few notes.  They sound good.  They always do.

I know how I'll answer.  She probably knows it too.  But in the meantime, let her sing a little of those Saturn Ring Blues.

This story originally appeared in On Spec.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."